Friday, 25 October 2013

The trifurcation of Nature; Every materialism is also a formalism

Looking back over chapter 4 of aime (on the beings of reproduction [rep]) I'm now struck by the description of formalism.  I think that this is really the key part of the whole chapter.  In fact the whole critique of 'matter' is based around it.

The 'idealist materialism' that Latour roughly delineates is only bifurcated (into material and ideal) if we fail to make another distinction between two kinds of ideality: subjective and objective.  If we take these as separate categories (and given the discussion of Modern formalism I think that this separation makes perfect sense) then we have a trifurcated, triangular configuration:

            1: objective-ideal              2: subjective-ideal

                                       3: matter

And the irony of it is that the most important relation in that triangle, for the Moderns, is the one between the two top terms, between the two idealities.  It's by establishing that relation that the Moderns believe that they come to dominate matter.  It is only by positing that behind all the dirty, complex matter of the actual mountain there is a formal mountain existing in res extensa that one can then conceive of this form being mirrored in the subjective idealist realm of the res cogitans.  In order for 2 to 'mirror' 1, 1 must be radically separated from 3.  The correspondence theory of truth (the quintessence of Modernism, surely?) only makes any sense if there are two realms of ideality with matter filling in the empty, abstract space.

For all the talk of materialism, matter isn't even the most important aspect of this Modern schema.  Modern matter is an artefact of idealism.  It undergirds and fills out the arrangement, nothing more.  Matter explains persistence because it is unbreakable, eternal, it only shifts form - so it undergirds.  And it fills out the schema by being the 'stuff' that has 'adventures through space.'  So, matter gives the metaphysic 'substance' in both senses of that word.  It gives ideality both persistence and content.

Matter is what is to be dominated and possessed thanks to the marriage of the two idealities made possible by the advent of rational thought - that's the Modern metaphysic and the Modern politic.

Every materialism is also a formalism - the latter is rarely given even a fraction of the attention of the former and yet it is arguably the most important term.

A philosophical mode of reasoning?; Finally understanding the religious mode (I think...)

Levi Bryant ponders whether one can conceive of philosophy as a 'mode' or 'sphere' in the senses of Latour or Luhmann.  I don’t have an answer to this question but I think I might have the beginnings of one.

At the start of A Pluralistic Universe James (whose influence on the modes project can hardly be overstated) argues that while any form of discourse can arrive at truths – even common sense, even accidentally – the distinctive quality of a philosophical truth is that it is reasoned.

On its own this is a bit simplistic.  Philosophy must be a distinct mode of reasoning, not reasoning itself.  However, I think it puts us on the right track.  Philosophy is distinct from mysticism because while mysticism may, in a way, concoct wisdom by concealing – it may instigate a particular kind of truth through the artful fabrication of experiences the authors of which are deliberately obscured and unattributed – it is not philosophy because it doesn't follow a philosophical thread of experience, a process of reasoning.  There may be mystical wisdom but that wisdom is not philosophical wisdom.  In fact they are opposites.

I read a chapter in a book a while ago (the names escape me, I need to look it up) on Plato's Statesman.  It was by a classicist who, undoubtedly, has forgotten more about Plato than I'll ever know but one thing struck me that he got absolutely and unequivocally wrong: after about a dozen pages of the dialogue Young Socrates objects that all these progressive distinctions layered upon distinctions upon distinctions (aiming to gradually arrive at the essence of the statesman) are a waste of time.  At that point the Stranger was still cutting through the different kinds of animals (two legged, four legged, etc.), having not yet arrived at the human.  ‘Why not cut right through all that and just say that there are humans on the one hand and non-humans on the other?,’ asks Young Socrates.  The Stranger explains, with joyous condescension, that this would fail to cut nature at its joints; it would do what Greeks do to non-Greeks, it would lump them into a whole category marked 'barbarians' (the root of which is the same as 'babble'; barbarians are those whose language one cannot understand, whose distinctions and differences one is insensitive to, ignorant of).  The Stranger points out that from the point of view of a crane (as in the bird) humans and all other animals may appear to be an undifferentiated mass, too.  I've written a few posts on this part of the dialogue before because I think it's fascinating.

Anyway, the really important point is that the classicist sided with Young Socrates.  He agreed that it was ridiculous that we had to go through all these distinctions layered upon distinctions when, in the end, we arrive at the same place: human beings (and then the statesman).  Why not ‘cut to the chase?’, he raged.  But this, for me, completely misunderstands philosophy.  Yes, the distinctive quality of a philosophical argument is that it is reasoned.  The process of reasoning is not extrinsic to the result of reasoning.  Philosophy is, then, intrinsically dialectical, dialogical.  We may, at the end of the dialogue, forget precisely how we got there but that isn’t the same thing as writing the whole process of reasoning off as a mere prelude, a preamble, a means to the end of the conclusion.  To ‘leap to the end’ (how fascinating that, in this dialogue, the Stranger argues against ‘straight talk’ and ‘double click’ – yes, it’s all footnotes…) would be to lose the thread of the argument, it would be a leap into mysticism, in a sense.

‘Cutting nature at its joints’ has always been understood as the realist, naturalist tenet par excellence.  And in a sense that’s accurate but the insight has been shallowly, thinly understood.  What cutting nature at its joints did in this dialogue was to expose the heterogeneity of being and at one and the same time it made our conclusion more difficult to reach rather than less.  We had to do much more work to get there and we emerged wiser for our efforts!  In order to get there we had to become more sensitive to the differences in the world and not less – the world became bigger and our thus our ignorance proliferated; we become more aware of our ignorance of the world because we came to know the world better.  We benefited from, we were transformed by, the whole thread experience, not just the conclusion.  And – this is key – we had to proliferate stages of reasoning in order to not arrive prematurely.  Had we arrived at our destination too quickly we would not really have arrived at all.

What is that urge?  The urge to ‘get there when we get there.’  Hmm, well that isn’t ‘philosophy’ but I think it is an aspect of the philosophical thread of experience.  At the very least this distinguishes philosophy from reference, as Latour describes it.  With reference [ref] it’s perfectly legitimate (indeed, it’s necessary) to paper over the mediators that got you from A to Z with the smoothing forces of habit [hab].  But philosophy is different.

You can’t just read the last few pages of a philosophy book (a good philosophy book, anyway) and ‘receive’ the whole argument in summary form.  If you can then it’s not philosophy.  The philosophical thread is a transformative thread.  You come out the other side different to how you went in.  Words no longer mean quite the same things; the world doesn’t appear quite the same way.  And as much as you try to explain these new-found insights to your friends and loved ones it is extremely difficult because you have to retrace large parts of the thread of experience that brought you to this point.  There is no substitute for the journey.  Merely stating the conclusions and smiling at them will only provoke blank stares and mutterings of ‘what a load of bollocks.’

Clearly there are ‘hiatuses’ that have to be overcome and threads that have to be followed, threads that cannot be short-circuited (by double-click reasoning) without destroying the paths themselves.  In Plato’s dialogue our becoming-wise depended upon the proliferation of stages, of problems, of hiatuses that had to be overcome not any-old-how but through a reasoned solution.  That ‘reasoned solution’ is the pass of this mode (if, indeed, it is a mode).  What is it that allows the simultaneous creation and solving of problems?  What distinguishes this particular kind of problem resolution?  What are the conditions of felicity that validate (or invalidate) these little leaps, these small steps for philosophy-kind?  What beings are engendered by these threads?

If we can answer those questions then we have our philosophical mode, our [phi].

Taking this further, there is a relationship with law that needs to be explored.  Law, for Latour, is a 'quasi-subjectifying' mode because it allows the attribution of actions to actors; law is the archive of action.  Mysticism, as I described it above, arrives at wisdom by breaking those threads and disavowing authority (it must have a relationship to metamorphosis [met] too but I don’t really understand that mode yet).  Philosophy doesn’t break links but it doesn’t preserve them in the same way as law (more evidence of its modal independence).  The steps needn’t be retraced as such (thus it differs from both law and reference), however the steps cannot be bypassed.  The journey is transformative.  It is similar to the religious mode in this sense (although I believe now that the [rel] mode is most likely two different things conflated together).

The religious mode is another quasi-subjectifying mode (politics makes the trinity).  Religion is really the archetypical instantiation of the mode rather than anything that ‘owns’ it (although it is articulated in purely religious language, confusingly).  The religious experience (and this is only my best understanding at the present moment, it’s not gospel truth!) that ‘personifies’ is the experience of the living (i.e. immanent) and (this point is essential) personal God.  The Word is the conversionary revelation that ‘Jesus died for your sins’ – not humanity’s sins, not yours by implication or association but yours specifically.  It's the statement that God loves you, that you have a personal relationship with Him.   This is metaphysically ‘personifying’ along the lines of Lacan’s mirror stage.  It is being recognised as a self by others that constitutes our self; our sense of self, our personhood, does not precede this recognition, it is not its cause but its consequence.

So, that’s why Latour builds the mode of personification around religion – because encountering the absolute, God, is the most personifying experience possible.  It’s not that it is the only form of personifying experience (he also gives the example of a couple’s declaration of love) but it is the most personifying, the essence of personification.  There are (at least) two problems with this: (1) building the whole personification mode from religious materials obscures non-religious forms of personification and makes the whole apparatus damned confusing and (2) I just don’t buy the whole idea of an immanent God.  However, as a technical term within his overall system religion as in [rel] does make sense because religious experience is, in principle, personification par excellence.

So, returning to what I was talking about before that cognitive RAM dump (I’ve been meaning to write that down all morning), philosophy is similar to religion in that it is transformative but it is transformative in a very different way.  It does not personify.  It is not focused inwards, or at least it has no specific direction in that way.  It changes how we see ourselves, yes, but also the world.

Philosophy tinkers with the very basis of our perceptions, of the structures that form our world as sensible, as meaningful, as structured.  Is philosophy essentially a critique of 'ideology,' then?  Perhaps.  We’d have to redress what we mean by critique (and, indeed, ideology) working within this modal framework but that would seem to be the conclusion I am led to.

Has this rambling string of words been rambling along the paths of philosophy?  Have I been doing philosophy, here?  I’ve certainly been doing it in Deleuze’s sense of writing at (and pushing past) the very limits of my understanding!!  I definitely didn’t know what how this was going to end up when I started.  In that sense I have been transformed, yes.  And I think I've been reasonable.  In that sense this has been philosophy.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

A concept of power without potentia

In a recent post I reflected on the significant limitations Latour's Deweyan political mode imparts upon his political philosophy.  I concluded by arguing that politics can only make sense given a concept of power.  Latour rejects power for largely philosophical reasons (and arguably sound reasons as far as they go).  Therefore, we need a concept of power that is compatible with the best of his thought but doesn't submit to the unnecessary limitations that he has placed upon himself.  The following constitutes an initial, schematic, impressionistic move to that end.  A first stream of thought that is hopefully headed in the right direction but has not yet located its target with any precision.

The problematic of power without substance.  To abstain from a concept that is essential for all political thinking because of philosophical quibbles is simply petty.  Power qua the potentia of a substance may be conceptually inadequate for our purposes but etymology is not an impassable barrier to conceptualisation.

Power as placement within an assemblage, a network with hierarchical or non-symmetrical properties.  P has power not because of any innate or bodily potential (his body plays a part, of course, but scarcely more than his aortic valve) but because of his placement within a vast assemblage of corridors, telephone wires, aides, secret service personnel, flags, lawns, bureaucrats, journalists, tanks, guns, bombs, etc.  All these things bear a relationship to P that is asymmetrical.  They are there for him in ways that he is not there for them (and vice versa, in fact).  His face is on practically every flat surface; a house of mirrors with him in the sweet spot. Those who buzz and flit around him are practically invisible by comparison.  He issues orders, they follow them with degrees or gradients of resistance, elements of disobedience and betrayal, yes, but far weaker, shallower gradients, far lesser betrayals than orders issued in the opposite direction!  (This particular Circle is massively lopsided.)

It isn’t difficult to think of power within networks (nor is it especially original).  Power is a property of actors arrayed in a highly particular fashion, a property of network structure – and structures only endure because of processes keeping them that way, yes, but given those processes power is real enough to be referred to by name.  A figuration, a synecdoche, yes – but that is true of all proper nouns.

Gradients of resistance.  The master issues orders and it is as though his words roll downhill, effortlessly.  The servant follows them dutifully without any real objection; his only immediate concern: trying to avoid being crushed under their seemingly massive weight!  The servant can make requests but only at great expense, with difficulty and only on special occasions.  It is as if he has to tenderly, gingerly roll his request up a hill and the master can disinterestedly swat it away, commanding, as he always does, the high ground.  With the slightest of disinclining gestures the request rolls back down again.  The servant is worse off than even Sisyphus, he cannot keep rolling his stone up again and again!  Next time the master’s response may not be as benign as a disinterested swat…

‘Ah, so the master ‘has power’ and the servant ‘does not.’’  Indeed, this is how it appears and it appears this way because this is how the network is structured.  And as long as it remains structured in this fashion then the dialectic keeps a’rollin’.  However, all networks are unstable – and structures are the least stable network-configuration of all!  All networks require institutions to keep them solid.  And this is especially true of tightly structured networks that must, if they are to remain self-respecting, appear to remain unchanged over decades, even centuries.

However, if they do hold (an empirical question) then the master really does ‘have power.’  The amount of ‘work’ he has to do in order to rebuff his servant’s meekest of requests is inconsiderable; the servant, contrariwise, has to work day and night just to meet his master’s approval and even then his words are so weak that they barely leave his mouth.  ‘Yes, sir.  Thankyou, sir.’  These are not his words even if they issue from his lips.  To speak his own words in his master’s presence is extremely risky – that is unless his master has granted him that privilege: ‘You, there! Say what’s on your mind, lad!’  A small foothold on the mountain.

The differential gradients are as real as anything – as long as the structure holds.  We can and should interrogate these structures to see how they work, however we needn’t and, indeed, cannot pick apart every structure every time.  Black boxes, habit – these are not the pudding-skin of false consciousness.  A habituated, instituted structure is a real structure with real effects.  It is churlish and unnecessary, therefore, to deny the existence of power.  Yes, it is a network-effect, yes it is unstable – but what isn’t?  You can’t tackle any explanandum without some explanans and sometimes that means taking network-effects for granted (they grant us this privilege when they stay stable, for whatever reason).  Indeed, this is the only way anything can ever happen.

If every network fell apart all at once there would be nothing because there is nothing beneath networks; no Nature, no God.  Nothing to pick up the pieces.  If the servant stopped to consider his situation, perturbed from the trajectories of obedience for whatever reason, he may come to rebel.  Habit keeps the relationship stable.  The very taken-for-grantedness is one thing that keeps the structure intact.  So, might we not want to untie those bonds for that very reason, to help unburden the poor servant?  Yes, we may very well do.  But (a) one cannot unburden every agent all at once (and not all want saving), (b) habit is only one thing keeping the structure stable, causing the servant to rebel could be very bad for him – he could be fired, thrown out by his unsolidarist former colleagues, blacklisted, even beaten or worse and with impunity because of the master has the ear of the local sheriff, etc. –  and (c) this is only an example, an archetypical (the archetypical) instantiation of a power relationship.  The point is to show that power gradients are real and that they can legitimately function as explanans if they relate to steadily structured network relations, the configuration of which establishes the differential work-gradients that we recognise as ‘power.’

The fact that these gradients depend on more than themselves only matters insofar as (1) we are morally or politically obligated to unpick these configurations in particular (in which case we particulate them and them alone) or (2) these structures aren’t sufficiently stable for our purposes and our explanation risks falling apart when they yield.  In any case, political power and networks are no more incompatible than electricity and the National Grid.

If kept stable the power is indeed there ‘in’ your wall socket.  If patriarchy remains intact then the man sat at the head of the table really 'has' power over his children and womenfolk.  If P succeeds in getting re-elected, avoiding impeachment and assassination, keeps his donors 'onside,' avoids being made a 'lame duck' (where he becomes P in all but name and is then confined to activities that belong purely to his office, i.e. bombing somewhere with a desert) then, yes, he is the most powerful man in the world.

Etymology be damned, a concept of power without potentia is entirely possible – and it is quite simply a requirement for any kind of politics (including [pol]) to make any sense whatsoever.

And before wise people object that none of this is new: I know.  That's my point.  Latour has abstained from 'power' for many, many years and his political philosophy is horrifically malnourished as a result.  My point is that there is simply no need for this.  The problematic is more a stream than a raging river and with some fairly light conceptual work the stream can be bridged.

Power is not a utility in short supply.  There is no danger of blackouts if we tap into the grid.

Theory must increase our ignorance of the world

The worst kind of theory is the theory that explains everything – it closes the box lid and declares playtime over.

The best kind of theory is the theory that allows us to gauge the staggering extent of our ignorance a little better – it leaves us a world ridden with holes, gaps, and fissures, ready for exploration.

The best theory should make us feel less knowing than we felt before. Not because it doesn’t tell us anything about the world but because it does, because it expands the world, because it reveals the world to be far larger than we could ever have imagined. Yes, good theory does tell us something about the world and that increases our ignorance.

People talk of science as though it were gradually filling in all the gaps, tarmacking every last pothole of existence - just a few more to go!  I can't speak for all science, of course, but one thing is for sure: science has increased our sense of ignorance at an exponentially faster rate than it has increased our knowledge. It was only in the 1920s that the existence of other galaxies was proven among astronomers. We went from one galaxy to hundreds of billions (at least) in a matter of decades! And yet we are told that we must think the absolute?! That if we fail to think being qua being then we are hemming ourselves in to our subject-worlds? That we either have the absolute or we die of claustrophobia?

No, it’s the opposite, again. Theory must put us on the path to exploration (and, yes, explanation) instead of wetly whispering in our ear 'don't ever go outside, you have all you need here with me.' It is Theory that is the shut-in.

Empiricism, abandoned; A concrete example of the politics mode; Return to power

One of the most frustrating things with Latour's abandonment of empiricism (in all but the most abstract, philosophical sense) in his works in the past decade (despite the fact that this is the period where he embraces the term most explicitly) is how much more difficult it makes it for him to explain his philosophy - and for us to understand it.  Even anecdotal examples of e.g. the political mode of speech would make it far easier to understand his argument.  Instead he ends up saying the same thing over and over, meandering endlessly, only reaching his conclusion after more or less exhausting his reader.

I'm not asking for 'straight talk,' unembellished, as-the-crow-flies, etc. - I'm just asking for talk that marshals the appropriate resources to get to where it's going without excessive and gratuitous meandering.  Be as direct as possible; no more, no less.  No author has his audience by right - he has to earn their attention.  In the past Latour has been an often brilliant writer but his loss of the empirical has coincided (and I don't think it's a coincidence) with the loss of a large measure of that wit, verve and directness.

Ed Miliband's speech at the Labour Party Conference this year was a good example of politics as Latour describes it (albeit not in its ideal, essential form).  Miliband had been dogged all summer by suggestions in the media that he was a 'weak leader,' that he didn't have the 'full support' of his party and that he couldn't 'connect' with voters.  This speech went a long way towards turning that around.  It contained enough 'red meat' to sate the party faithful in the room but also contained enough populist ideas to appeal to the 'floating voters' and he did enough to distance himself from the left wing of his party (and his family) to at least partially appease centrists/centre-rightists concerned that he might actually be 'red.'  He did a fairly good job of tying this constituencies together (at least according to those who decide the media narrative) and he secured his political position as a result.

The point in relation to Latour's argument is that Miliband did so through rhetoric.  He didn't stand up there in that agora and 'say what he really thinks'; he didn't stand and read a laundry list of the things he'd do, the policies he'd enact in 'straight,' quasi-scientific language.  He intimated, insinuated, explained, joked, grandstanded.  His speech was a compromise between of a vast number of different forces.  Every one of those forces had to be 'betrayed' in order to be represented.  Not one of those constituencies would have been overjoyed at the speech as a whole; not one of those listening would have written that same speech, worded in that same way; and, indeed, if Miliband were to 'say what he really thinks' then undoubtedly the speech would have been very different.

However, the ambiguous, bubbling, swerving 'curve' of his speech was sufficient to draw enough of his constituents along to reaffirm his political status as leader of the Labour Party.  He succeeded in sufficiently representing enough people that he could count on their obedience (in one form or another) again.  That's politics as Latour describes it.  It's intrinsically representative, intrinsically rhetorical.  And, as far as it goes, he has a point.  When people expect 'straight talk' from their politicians they not only expect too much, they misunderstand the politician's vocation.  The only the way a politician can represent and be obeyed is to be afforded the flexibility of rhetoric, the ability to shift positions, to 'betray.'

And with some work we could even extend this idea past its major hangups, past the cosy, cloying liberal democratic language that Latour clings to and see that a king, an autarch must also be sensitive to the needs and wishes of his subjects in order to command their obedience.  Indeed, he has the castles and the money and the power to have them beaten and enslaved but a brutal king runs the risk of rebellion - for he is one and they are many.  If he wants to keep his head on his shoulders he would do well to respect the Circle, too.  All of this is in Machiavelli (and perhaps Hobbes).  It is, in this sense, a realpolitik mode.  It is literally amoral (morality is another mode entirely [mor]).  And if we bear that in mind and strip out some of the Deweyan baggage - turning it from a political [pol] or democratic [dem] mode into a mode of political representation ([rep] is already taken!) - then it starts to look a lot healthier, more 'full cheeked' as Latour says in aime, somewhere.

So, as far as the argument goes it has some saving graces.  However, because it meanders so widely and proceeds so slowly and repetitively it really doesn't go very far.  'Tying constituencies together,' thus representing them, thus establishing their obedience to him is only one of the things that Miliband did well in that speech.  He also demonstrated his competence as a leader.  He reassured sceptical would-be allies that he was 'leadership material,' that, come the next General Election, he could take the platform next to David Cameron and give him 'a run for his money.'  In other words, he reassured unsettled supporters that he could win the election, that he was politically 'potent.'  That doesn't fit in with Latour's narrative at all.  'Alas, a mere detail of habit - the way that the Circle is gradually corrupted by repetition and institution.'  Perhaps, but that doesn't change the fact that there is far more to politics than the Circle.  And the rest is not a remainder, it is not mere detail.

Moreover, it's pretty much impossible, historically speaking, to make the Circle aboriginal of politics.  Dewey was extraordinarily naive on this point, believing that states formed around existing political publics and that the multiplicity of states could be explained by the manner in which 'issues' or 'problems' are spatially limited to particular areas (this argument is in The Public and its Problems).  How can a Frenchman of all people not understand that every polis and every state is born in blood and terror?  There's no territory without terror! - goodness knows, Latour loves etymology enough to know this.  The state doesn't gradually congeal and encrust around an already existing polis, so as to institute it, shield it.  Or, if it does, then this polis bears little resemblance to Lippmann's 'phantom.'

And how can someone who speaks of Gaia every other sentence not see Dewey's naivety vis-à-vis political multiplicity as the result of the spatial finitude of issues?  Okay, Latour would probably argue that Dewey could only have believed what he did in the period 'we thought we were Modern' and that it has since been demonstrated that our state system is inadequate to our Gaia-political moment because issues are now without territorial limit - that, henceforth, politics must be global...  Undoubtedly.  However, it's still astonishingly naive to think that institutions form around issues, that states follow representative politics rather than forming the conditions under which representative politics (with all its carefully, gradually and haphazardly designed limitations) can take place; that just because issues have 'gone global' that institutions not only must follow but will (because, taken at his word, that is what Dewey believed).  Buried within the pseudo-realpolitik (itself hidden within the language of liberal democracy) is the most extraordinary political idealism.

By way of conclusion, then, there are many problems with aime and with the politics mode in particular.  However, I think that it's very important to remember the considerable discursive generosity that Latour is offering with this project.  The 'collaborative' aspect is indeed managed and the website is still very much in development.  However, there are merits to these modes and to the modal system and Latour is not only inviting criticism, he is facilitating it (albeit not with his style of writing, which makes the whole endeavour much more difficult!).  And there are potential remedies.

The main thing that [pol] is lacking a concept of power.  Latour has rejected the very idea of power from the very beginning of his work, however I believe that we are now in a position - now that he has presented us with his magnum opus and effectively said 'have at it' - that a concept of power internal to and consistent with network ontologies can be developed.  That is a topic for a later post...

Latour's Modes, Value Judgements

Latour's modes do not describe their referent practices as they are actually practiced.  The modes describe their referent practices as they are practiced well.  In the case of religion that might mean that the religious mode has been more or less dead for centuries.  In the case of politics, well I wonder whether it has ever actually worked like that.  In the imagination of 'establishment liberal' John Dewey, perhaps, but nowhere else.

Latour's 'values derived from experience' are not, therefore, value neutral.  On the contrary, they derive from a definite value judgement in the normal, non-ironic sense of that term.  These values are inseparable from their author, at least initially.  He may try to pass his experience on to us - and this is right, this is good, why else would we read his books? - but we must not allow him to step away from his instaurations so easily.  He must be made to work and sweat to give them their own lives, their independent trajectories.  So far his achievements in that regard have been mixed.

The modes are most convincing when they are actually based on fieldwork.  The reference mode is an updated version of the famous chapter from Pandora's Hope on circulating reference.  I think that is still the best essay he's ever written and it'll probably be the one that is still read many years from now.  The technology mode is also if not entirely convincing then certainly compelling, especially if you've read his book Aramis.  The law mode isn't particularly well explained in aime but it makes sense in light of his book The Making of Law.  The problem that mode has is the sheer plurality of ways that law is practiced.  However, again, because it is actually derived from fieldwork it makes a strong case (so to speak!).

Where Latour goes awry is in the chapters that aren't based upon fieldwork but upon other philosophers.  The politics mode is, as I suggested above, lifted straight from John Dewey; in particular The Public and Its Problems.  To the best of my knowledge Latour has never done any empirical research on politics whatsoever.  His overlong and, considered alongside the rest of his corpus, rather superfluous Politics of Nature is entirely unblemished by any kind of experiential concreteness.  Dewey also seems to provide the basis of the religion mode with his A Common Faith.

Latour has many more philosophical influences besides Dewey, of course - Lippmann and James just to name the other early twentieth century Americans.  The reproduction chapter is a bit like reader's digest version of Whitehead; the whole 'Gaia' and 'end of Nature' thing is derived from Michel Serres' The Natural Contract; most of the concepts that date back to Irreductions are Nietzschean through and through.  And so on.

Of course, it isn't that doing philosophy is bad.  In fact Latour is a terrific bricoleur of philosophy.  One of the best.  The problem with these 'pure philosophy' modes is that they take the abstraction so very far away from practices but nevertheless maintain the same rhetorical insinuations, continually implying themselves to be concrete, hard-nosed and evidentialist.  These chapters radically conflate the strictly philosophical meaning of 'empiricism' and the other sense that indicates fieldwork and evidence.  They might be empiricist inasmuch as they operate on the basis of a concept of experience derived from James' radical empiricism but they have little to no empirical content in terms of fieldwork, case studies or even anecdotal examples.

These purely philosophical modes are much less convincing.  They cling to their author; he is the only thing holding them up.  The politics mode, for instance, is scarcely deserving of the name.  It is a theory of democratic politics, for a start; it should be called [dem].  It does nothing to describe politics as it is practiced, in fact it makes that more difficult.  It is a work of political philosophy that attempts to describe the processes through which the liberal democratic ideal could be realised.  It operates in a space of pure abstraction.

There's nothing wrong with that as such but it is squarely a matter of political philosophy not political science.  It is, therefore, more or less useless for any actual fieldwork.  In fact it is worse than useless because, operationalised, it would only distract fieldworkers from what is in front of them - the phenomena they should really be paying attention to.  In other words, it would sunder the most fundamental tenet of actor-network theory (and ethnomethodology), to follow the actors and learn from them.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Simon Jenkins, don't quit the day job

Richard Murphy tears into Simon Jenkins' article encouraging the further neoliberalisation of academic research.  Jenkins argues that:
If I were an academic I would stop pretending I was “investing in the nation’s future”. I would stop using such language. I would try to give students what they want for their money, usually a well-rounded education and a mild sense of obligation to society, and tuck my research into my spare time.
Murphy rightly points out that education can't be reduced to 'knowledge transfer'; it is also about teaching critical thinking skills.

But even if the purpose of education is ‘knowledge’ instead of critical thinking (which, I agree, is a mindset that could use a lesson in critical thought) then where the hell is this knowledge meant to come from? Is it magicked out of thin air? Maybe, as a columnist, Jenkins confuses knowledge with opinion. When he wants to write on a subject he’ll spend some time on Google, maybe with some books, and then, armed with that ‘knowledge,’ pontificate away.

But that isn’t knowledge. Knowledge isn’t something that can just be picked up from books (and especially not from the Internet!). Knowledge itself presupposes a whole critical process of production, critique and reproduction. It’s that entire infrastructure that is captured in the name ‘Research’ and that is the infrastructure that is under attack.

No more research, no more knowledge (of any quality, anyway).

All in all, Simon Jenkins needs to go back to school.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Conservatism, Capitalism and Fallen Man

Richard Murphy points to Aditya Chakrabortty's recent article on the loneliness created by neoliberal capitalism.
The flipside of economic individualism is loneliness.
It’s been a fundamental contradiction in conservative ideology for a very long time: the very capitalist system that they worship destroys the ways of life that they would have conserved. This is why the ‘fall of man’ narrative is always so appealing to conservatives – bad people do bad things because they’re bad (i.e. for no rational reason) and the only solution to their evil and fecklessness is admonishment and discipline. There’s no social or political prelude to bad people doing bad things, there’s no causality. There’s just a rot, a pox that’s somehow ‘in their bones’ – particular to them as individuals – and needs to be beaten out of them. (See the response to the London riots, for example.)

The whole ideology is really one big exercise in having their cake and eating it too – fueling a system that is fundamentally socially transformational and expecting the same old ‘family values’ to persevere unchanged. It’s as violent as it is irrational.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Religious transcendence: Bug or Feature?; Secular [REL]?; [REL] is an amalgam?

I just finished reading chapter 11 of An Inquiry into Modes of Existence.  Wow, it was hard work!  (And I started his book Rejoicing today too - no rest for the wicked...)  There's a huge amount to say about the chapter but I think the main thing to ask is this: is religious transcendence a bug or a feature?  That's what it comes down to.

Latour insists that it is the former, that what religion (or Christian religion, anyway) is 'really about' is the immanent process of proselytisation, of converting others by translating the Good News, thus bringing them closer together and thus making them into 'persons.'  This process is intrinsically transformational both in terms of the words used and the subjects involved.  If either words or subjects fail to be transformed then REL atrophies and its institution is gradually lured into 'belief in belief' - the apparently crazy supposition that religion is a set of tenets that its believers 'hold' (and hold still, static); referential beliefs about how reality is (i.e. 'there is a God; homosexuality is a sin', etc.); doxa qua ontology.  The idea that prior to the scientific revolution the declarations of plump religious authority figures were all people had as reference to the far away (and that reference wasn't superimposed on something else as a category mistake but was simply outcompeted by a far better model) isn't considered.

The suggestion is that Jesus was put on the Earth to do this work (or kick start it) and at some unspecified point in the past (presumably beginning from some time shortly after the year 0 and extending an unknown number of years) there was a Golden Age where this is what the institution set up to nourish this value - namely, the Church - did: proselytise, immanently and without reference or belief.  I'm not an expert on the history - I'm not even really an amateur on the subject - but this strikes me as largely bullshit.  Correct me if I'm wrong.

Here's the thing: Latour's philosophical nemesis, the godfather of the Moderns died a full four centuries before Jesus was even born.  Yes, Socrates.  It seems to me that he pretty much is 'Double Click' [DC].  Moreover, the Church has had strong Platonic influences from its very beginning.  So when was this age when the values were nourished and the oh so obviously false allure of transcendence was kept at arms' length?  This 'empiricist' philosophy has no answers.

The other major issue is the fact that, taken at an analytical level, at the level of technicalities, the institutions of religion do not seem to 'own' the REL mode.  A couple's assurances of love constitute 'personification' in a sense that Latour articulates and then uses to define the REL trajectory - acts of REL personify similarly; REL is love writ large is the suggestion (but only that).

So, on that level it seems perfectly possible that while religion may typify REL - that is, Christian proselytisation may be the archetypical, classic instantiation of the mode - it does not own it; that secular religious talk, secular personification is possible.  However, the entirety of the rest of the argument utterly buries this possibility.  The whole mode is constructed out of purely Christian (and largely Catholic) words and concepts (even though, allegedly, REL must be reproduced always using new words! it must never stay the same!...).  No further mention of any kind of REL outside of religion is given.  By the end the idea seems entirely implausible.

There are two possibilities: either (a) secular REL exists or (b) it doesn't.  If (a) then why not mention it?  Why build the entire mode out of one institution's iteration of it (and an institution that is admitted to have done a very bad job of looking after it over the years).  That would be a monumental failure of diplomacy.  But then if it's (b) then there are two further possibilities; either (1) the non-religious, since they don't participate in the rituals, don't get to be people, or (2) the non-religious are personified by REL without knowing it, somehow.  The latter is seemingly impossible for any Latourian metaphysic; the former is either a tremendous insult to the non-religious or becoming a 'person' isn't all that important after all.

None of those options seem like especially good ones.  Are some humans deprived of personhood?  And if so how come nobody noticed until now?  Does it even matter?  And if not why take up such a large chunk of my Sunday making me read all about it?  (Why sum up the chapters on REP and REF so wonderfully succinctly and then spend oh so many pages saying basically the same things over and over again on the subject of religion?  Am I meant to be converted out of sheer boredom?  'Yes, please, make it stop, I'll accept Jesus into my heart just stop talking!')  Maybe I'm personified because I was Christened (against my will, naturally) as a small child.  However, I have, in adulthood, distanced myself from all churches as far as possible (I am still regularly accosted by Jehovah's Witnesses in the street but that's seemingly unavoidable), so is personhood a lasting quality?  If so, how?  Nothing else is.  Am I personified by love?  Rather a kitsch idea.  And there are certainly times where my personhood would have scattered like so much dust in the wind were that the case...  I'm sure that I'm not alone in that (at least).  Are orphans who have not experienced romantic or familial love not people?  Certainly they often suffer from self-esteem issues and have difficulty forming relationships but that's not the same thing. I'm clutching at straws, I know, but that's all I'm left with.

All in all, a complete mess.

Regardless of the fact that I wildly disagree with most of it there is far too much packed in to one mode.  What has personification (as Latour describes it) got to do with the eternal?  What has any of that got to do with 'accessing what is close at hand' as opposed to 'far away'?  For a chapter that set out to reach some conclusions that a '7 year old' could understand it must surely be considered a failure (or I'm not as clever as I think I am - that's always a possibility).

It seems to me that REL is an amalgam.  It's a poorly conceived mode.  It seems to come more from wish fulfilment than from any ontological, empirical necessity.  In fact it has to fight bitterly against experience just to get a foot in the door.

I suppose we could say that this chapter isn't really 'for' me - it's for the religious, it's addressed to their needs, their values, their insecurities - but then it isn't much of a 'diplomatic' effort, is it?  I'd quite like to be a person, please.  So I really have to pay attention to this mode, whether I like it or not.

There's one good thing I can think to say about this chapter: I like the idea that there may be values within religion as it was practiced before the scientific revolution that have been lost and not replaced in contemporary, secular society.  That idea is excellent.  However, this articulation of it is terrible.

Yes, I'm a 'tough sell,' for sure.  I can't even begin to understand what the purpose of religion without transcendence is.  It's a deflated balloon, without form or content.  Take away the promise of Transcendence and Truth (and with that Power and Authority) and the churches will empty and fall into disrepair in a matter of weeks.  They'll revert to what they currently are in most British towns and cities: places for Scout troops to meet, yoga lessons to take place and homeless people to sleep.  Oh, and weddings.  A provider of draughty, crumbling local infrastructure.  The Bible would be just another work of literature.

Religious transcendence: it's not a bug, it's a feature.  It's the only reason anyone's ever heard of a Jesus of Nazareth.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Becoming sensitive to things, 'outside' and 'inside' perspectives

In the comments on a previous post I wrote:
[...] We can't step outside our senses and see things 'as they really are' but we can increase our sensitivities and the number of pathways that lead from them. This can lead to qualitatively improved knowledge as well as superior plurality in a political sense. [...] we need to be so sensitive to nuances in our subject matter.
I'm asked:
how does an "increase our sensitivities" make "us more uncertain, more hesitant as to our next step...makes us a little bit more 'lost' in our moment"?
Good question.  Inasmuch as I understand myself, I think the two things - sensitivity and lostness - come together.  Perhaps 'lost' is overstating it.  Given a choice we become temporarily lost, momentarily lost, we're hesitant because a choice has to be made.  We're lost in the sense that things become regularly unfamiliar and there's a pause, a hiatus before we can make them familiar again, if that makes sense.  It's a matter of making our experiences more regularly, rhythmically problematic.

If one has only one metaphysic, one sensitivity, one mode, one discursive frame (or whatever) to choose from (e.g. an ontology of actor-networks) and if that apparatus covers all cases (which, presumably, it must) then there's never a choice to be made as to which apparatus to apply.  There's only one.  Therefore the question of the fitness or unfitness of the apparatus is unlikely to arise - (a) because it's such a broad church that it can accommodate everything pretty much by default and (b) because one becomes unaccustomed to even asking that kind of question.

Contrariwise, if there's more than one then a choice must be made every time: which tool is right for the job?  The fitness/unfitness of the apparatus becomes a regularly worked problem.  The more the choices one has the more difficult the decision becomes because a greater plurality of qualities and nuances present themselves and have to be accounted for before deliberation is closed.  The more these qualities are portioned out and distinguished in multiple frames the more likely they are to clash and contrast with each other when applied to a particular case; thus, the more likely one is to notice the unique specificities of the case (and the inadequacies of the frame) if they do not fit with one's presuppositions (and if they do fit - great!).

Although, having said all of that, the rationalist imposition of a 'frame' or 'mode' from the outside is certainly a limited metaphor and I'm not totally convinced of my own words.  Here's another attempt to make basically the same point - through Plato, believe it or not.  That post reads much more like an anthropologist's method: immersion in a culture, gradually figuring out the contours by slow acculturation.  But the goal is the same: becoming sensitive to a wider range of nuances in the world.

Hartour; Caputo as the proverbial hammer man

Terence Blake has more on Harman on Caputo.  He asks: does Caputo out-Latour Harman?  The answer?  Yes and no.

I'd turn it around a bit and go further.  Harman more or less attempts to out-Latour Latour himself - see the Prince and the Wolf, for example.  When Latour expresses bafflement at Harman's iteration of his ideas Harman is entirely unperturbed.  In that sense isn't Harman's Latour - let's call that Hartour - a very Modern (or perhaps postmodern, small difference) version of those ideas?  The objections of the author qua informant (or author qua authority in the postmodern version) are largely without consequence.  Objections are not the kind of 'objects' that object oriented philosophy is sensitive to (c.f. Latour and his debt to Garfinkel and ethnomethodology).

I'd have no problem whatsoever with Hartour if Harman just admitted that it's his own particular translation/deformation of Latour's work and that it serves as a foil to the development of his own philosophy - which is what the Prince of Networks is all about, the first half sets up Hartour as both a stepping stone and a straw man (a stepping man? a straw stone?) to be ascended and then overturned.  In and of itself there's nothing wrong with that whatsoever.  But Prince of Networks is written and promoted like its an authentic account of the corpus itself, like a quasi-textbook, which is shameless.

On the subject of Caputo, I think that he is certainly right that Latour is not as different from Derrida as he'd like to think ("anxiety of influence", yes; I'd also say 'Oedipal reflex', something that most philosophers are guilty of!), however as philosophical predecessors go I honestly don't think Derrida would crack the top ten (Latour's a well read chap and a bricoleur of the highest quality).  To suggest that Latour's philosophy is basically just Derrida in different words is pretty much BS.  In fact isn't it intrinsic to Latour's philosophy from the very beginning that nothing is contained in anything else in potentia?  From irreductions (as I recall it): 'Nothing is, by itself reducible or irreducible to anything else.  To say something is to say it in other words, that is to translate.'  Even if Caputo was right Latour still needed to do that work of translation.  It can't have been done for him, not in Latour's own terms, anyway.

Of course, Caputo is the proverbial man with a hammer: to him everything looks like a Derrida!  Perhaps the really unacknowledgeable trauma for Caputo is that Derrida wasn't a supremely original ubermenschen either.  Their ideas are similar in some ways but that may have less to do with Latour's massive debt to Derrida than the fact that they both read Nietzsche.